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Getting to Hirafu was a cacophony of cancelled trains (too much snow, so a mixed blessing when heading to a ski resort), and stressful travel moments. Eventually we politely pushed our way onto a local ‘stop-at-every-lamppost’ chugger, and stood like sardines clutching our bags as we passed by the most spectacular scenery including some huge waves crashing onto a beach of snow just a few meters from the train window.
The resort of Hirafu has been referred to as the ‘Aspen’ of Japan. This description manifested to be partly true. The town is peppered with Michelin starred restaurants and Montclere clothing stores, but the slopes are sparsely serviced by various lift types and quality ranging from perfectly decent gondolas, to the ‘pizza box’ – a ‘single’ chair lift with no safety barriers that swings violently from side to side as it hoiks you to the top of the volcano whilst you are buffeted by 30mph winds carrying icy snow ready to slash and burn any piece of flesh that you may inadvertently have left exposed. The clientele ranges from posers dripping with diamonds that barely make it out of the spa to the slopes right through to the most hardcore powder hounds EVER who make us feel like softcore part-timers who can barely stand up on a set of skiis!
It is cold. Very cold. The weather comes from Siberia which results in so much fresh powder every day that its hard to moan about anything really. After I had bought the local corner shop out of hand and foot warmers all has been well on the temperature front! The sun rarely comes out fully. The weather ranges from full on blizzard to a kind of ethereal light as the sun fights its way through the clouds which cling to the volcano sides. There are no animals or birds around so those moments when you find yourself alone on the slopes are eerily beautiful in their quietness. In contrast, on the groomed slopes there are constant loudspeaker announcements which echo with distortion and remind me of sci-fi movies where the ‘evil administration’ is constantly broadcasting to the nation.
It is absurdly beautiful. The mountains are cloaked with silver birch trees, adorned with delicate deposits of snow.
Skiing here couldn’t be more different to Europe. I haven’t encountered a patch of ice in 2 weeks on the slopes. Runs are generally quite short, as the skiing is on a series of volcanoes that aren’t particularly high, but since mostly we ski down through the trees, or hike to various peaks to ski off piste that slows us down a fair bit (especially when we take in a few tree ‘hugs’ on the way down). There is a system of ‘gates’ which lead to ungroomed off-piste avalanche controlled areas which is where we spend most of our time to make the most of the abundant powder. We are learning a whole new lingo eg ‘its completely tracked out man’ which means that a handful of people have gotten to a particular patch before you and left their ski or board trails to mess with your smooth turns and perfect lines. And the lift helpers are SOOO polite! They take your skis from you to pop into the gondola storage slots, and you can frequently then get into a courtesy bowing ‘duel’ as you pay your respects and thank each other. I usually concede defeat when the gondola doors are about to shut to take my skis up the mountain without me.
James and I joined various workshops to try to get to grips with the powder and the trees, and can now more or less get down anything in the resort. The girls have come on hugely and one if not both of them will have overtaken us in both skill and speed by the end of this part of our adventure. They are already tough to keep up with. They tend to nip off-piste into the woods if you lose concentration for a second. Blink and you miss them! Sometimes they pop back out (usually over some kind of drop off or jump), and otherwise you just catch up with them a the bottom of the slope. They have also taken to ‘surfing’ the gondolas (‘look no hands’) which I suspect has something to do with all the Aussie instructors they have been hanging out with.
Home has been an apartment with a fabulous view of Mount Yotei, which occasionally we can even see when the wind is blowing in the right direction and the sun comes out. Half term brought lots of cosy movie nights, and the slopes have delivered lots of ramen at lunch time which generally goes down well!
We’ve taken Saturday’s ‘off’ to give the legs and the lift-passes a rest. Week one we took the train to nearby town Otaru for their snow festival. In contrast to the huge scale snow festival we visited in Sapporo, this one was on a truly local scale which lent a much more intimate atmosphere while still being breathtakingly stunning. The light installations were set all along a canal, and many featured lanterns with delicate flowers set into them, or intricate calligraphy painted on sheets of ice.
Week 2 we went to the local climbing wall, reminded ourselves how to belay the girls, and sent them up and down some fairly epic walls and overhangs. Mission accomplished – they slept well that night!
Other than that its been mostly skiing and chilling. Other than sampling plenty of the Hokkaido cuisine (king crab legs, soup curry, hot pot, uni (sea urchin gonads!), and rice bowls), our cultural explorations also took us to watch an amazing drumming group perform in the town centre. Turn your volume up – it will be worth it:
- It stopped snowing about a week ago!
- The resort emptied apart from the foreigners
- We switched out our big fat powder skiis for carvers and hit the ‘groomers’
- Bella and Emily are now both faster than both of us
Oh yes, forgot to mention that James grew a beard, and got on a board. Both short-lived thankfully!!
2 more days here then we hit Tokyo for some city vibes – get ready!